News & Media

Inside NASCAR: Money, a meeting and the Modern Era of NASCAR

August 03, 2011, Mark Aumann,

Wheeler: Junior Johnson derserves much of the credit as 'savior' of tough times

The story of the Modern Era in NASCAR has more to do with whiskey, cigarettes, Congress and television as it does with anything that's happened on the track, before or since. It was a shotgun marriage that lasted 32 years, connecting a sport desperately needing an influx of cash to a willing and able partner in a corporation desperately needing a new way to sell its product.

And it all revolves around two men who grew up in Wilkes County, N.C.: Junior Johnson and Ralph Seagraves.

It's been nearly four decades since Richard Petty won the first race of the Modern Era on Jan. 23, 1972 at Riverside International Raceway. That came just six weeks after Petty closed out the 1971 season with a victory at Texas World Speedway. In essence, the drivers, the cars and the racing remained relatively unchanged.

"Few people realize today how close things came then to collapsing."


Instead, it was a series of seemingly unrelated occurrences over a three-year span culminating in a meeting between Johnson and marketing executives from R.J. Reynolds, including Seagraves, that eventually brought the sport into the prosperity it continues to enjoy to this day.

NASCAR president Bill France Jr. gets much of the credit for the implementation of the Modern Era, and certainly his guidance during that time was a key factor in NASCAR's survival under less than ideal economic conditions. However, the story of NASCAR's Modern Era really begins in Washington, D.C., where Seagraves had been working as a district sales manager for much of the 1960s.

A tall, imposing man, the smooth-talking Seagraves seemingly knew -- and was friends with -- everybody who was anybody important, particularly in the nation's capital. For example, he used his connections to get specially marked packs of Camel and Winston cigarettes prominently displayed on board Air Force One.

But Seagraves faced his biggest challenge in 1969, when Congress began debating the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act. The bill was aimed at putting more teeth into legislation passed four years prior, requiring cigarette manufacturers to put warning labels on each pack sold.

For decades, the tobacco companies had been spending millions of dollars on radio and television advertising, an estimated $220 million on TV ads in 1970 alone. But the bill signed into law by President Richard Nixon on April 1, 1970 banned all cigarette advertising over the airwaves by the end of the calendar year, eliminating big tobacco's No. 1 marketing platform.

While tobacco companies had lots of money to spend and nowhere to turn, NASCAR was running into cash flow issues of its own.

In the late '60s, NASCAR was still running as many as 50 races a season, many on smaller tracks that were stuck in a vicious cycle. Because the track couldn't take out long-term loans to fund capital improvements, the facilities gradually became more and more run down. That resulted in fewer fans attending, which meant smaller purses for the teams and drivers.

Johnson, a stocky man with thick eyebrows and a shock of graying hair, had first-hand knowledge of the dollars and cents needed to run a race team. The man called "The Last American Hero" in a magazine essay by Tom Wolfe -- a piece which described in detail his amazing racing career and equally amazing second career as a moonshiner -- had retired as a driver in 1966 after recording 50 victories.

Johnson remained in the sport as a car owner, but he found himself increasingly forced to make decisions based on the financial well-being of his team, especially at a time when the sport was still focused on dirt tracks and bullrings.

"NASCAR couldn't pay much for them little short tracks," Johnson said. "You'd get $1,000 to win and spend about $3,000 to get that $1,000. When they started doing asphalt tracks, you'd get $5,000 or $10,000 to win. That brought me to where I could quit running moonshine and get strictly into racing."

"I told him I needed $800,000. He came back and said, 'We've got $570 million dollars from our television budget that we can't put nowhere.' "




"When I called back to see if they were going to sponsor my car, they said [France] didn't want them to sponsor the car because the contract was for only NASCAR. So I lost my $800,000 and NASCAR got the sponsorship."


The escalating costs of the manufacturers muscle car battle between Ford and Chrysler -- and the tire wars between Firestone and Goodyear -- were taking its toll. At the end of the 1969 season, all but Goodyear announced they would be eliminating their racing programs.

Humpy Wheeler, former Charlotte Motor Speedway president and general manager, was working for Firestone at the time. He remembered that period as a bleak one for the sport.

"Few people realize today how close things came then to collapsing," he said. "It was awful between 1970 and 1972, because three of the four major companies had gotten out: Ford, Firestone and Chrysler. And Goodyear wasn't spending any money. So there were no sponsors of any consequence of all. Between those four companies, they had supported 12 to 14 teams. Then the crumbs from those top teams fell down to the smaller teams.

"Everybody was so used to getting all that stuff from the automobile companies and they got money from the tire companies. Between the two of them, they were well-heeled for the time. When all of that suddenly went away, we all knew that something had to be done, and done fairly fast. While everybody had used equipment from the factory days, that wasn't going to last. Because racing just wears stuff out so fast."

Like the rest of the major NASCAR teams, Johnson lost his factory support from Ford for the 1970 season but tried to soldier on as an independent. Unfortunately, things went from bad to worse when the little sponsor money he had been getting dried up. Faced with an uncertain future, Johnson got an idea. What if a company like R.J. Reynolds -- 30 miles down the road from his hometown of Ronda -- might be interested in sponsoring his car?

"I never raised no tobacco or had any connections with the tobacco business at that time," Johnson said. "I was 90 percent into the whiskey business, you know? I was more doing my stuff and they were doing theirs."

Johnson knew enough about the cigarette advertising ban to think he and Richard Howard, who was then president of general manager of Charlotte Motor Speedway, might at least get an audience with the folks in Winston-Salem in the fall of 1970.

"I thought, 'Well, if they took them off from television, they'd be a good sponsor for a race car,' " Johnson said. "I knew a guy from Hanes, and he was good friends with a guy from R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. I asked him to contact them for me and see if there was any interest. He set it up, and about three days after I talked with him, we went down there and sat down with them."

The plan, according to Wheeler, was to show the Reynolds folks how their three major cigarette brands might look on a stock car.

"I did the art for the proposal with RJR," Wheeler said. "I did a Camel race car, a Winston race car and a Salem race car. That's what [Johnson] and Richard Howard presented to them."

Johnson still remembers to this day the conversation that transpired at that point.

"The guy said, 'What kind of money are you looking for to sponsor a car?' " Johnson said. "I told him I needed $800,000. He came back and said, 'We've got $570 million dollars from our television budget that we can't put nowhere.' "

Then Johnson offered an alternative suggestion.

"They started talking about it and I said, 'Well, what if you sponsored the whole thing? Go talk to NASCAR,' Johnson said. "And they asked what I thought it would cost, and I really didn't know. But I said, 'You'd have the whole sport to yourself for several million dollars.' "

At some point during the conversation, Seagraves began to realize the potential impact of what Johnson was proposing. Reynolds was in the process of using Winston as a rival to competitor Liggett and Myers' Marlboro brand, and linking the cigarette to stock cars -- in RJR's strongest markets -- was basically a no-lose scenario.

"I told them to give me their number and I contacted Bill France Sr.," Johnson said. "They did that, they got together and worked out a deal."

But when Johnson checked back with the folks in Winston-Salem, he was in for a disappointment.

"When I called back to see if they were going to sponsor my car, they said [France] didn't want them to sponsor the car because the contract was for only NASCAR," Johnson said. "So I lost my $800,000 and NASCAR got the sponsorship."

Reynolds dipped its toe in the water in 1971, sponsoring the Winston 500 at Talladega in May and offering a prize of $100,000 -- called the Winston Cup -- to the season champion. The following year, France Jr. cut the schedule to a more-manageable 31 races, all on tracks larger than a half-mile, and the Winston Cup Series was born.

But according to Johnson, the most important thing the Reynolds marketing team did was improve NASCAR's image, with the teams, the fan base and the general public.

"Before that, [NASCAR] had the whole thing and was putting out all the money for advertising," Johnson said. "And Reynolds came in and took that advertising over, started fixing up the race tracks and paying NASCAR to do this and do that.

"It was just the greatest thing that ever happened to NASCAR because the purses got bigger and the grandstands got full. And tracks were coming out of the woods, trying to get a date, because Reynolds was upgrading all the race tracks, painting the walls and helping them get their tracks in first-class shape. It was just a dream come true for everybody, not just NASCAR but all the competitors."

Losing a potential sponsor was a short-term blow for Johnson but things have a way of working themselves out. He wound up selling his team to Howard but was retained as team manager. And perhaps most importantly, he enticed Chevrolet to return to NASCAR.

David Pearson and Richard Petty talk before a race in 1960. (Getty)

"Nothing, and I mean nothing, is stronger for a sport than rivalries, particularly those that are ongoing -- which we really do not have today. "


"One of things Junior was also involved with was getting Chevy back in the picture," Wheeler said. "They had gotten out of it back in '63 and Junior still had a lot of connections up there."

Charlie Glotzbach scored the team's first win at Bristol in 1971. The following year, Johnson landed Coca-Cola as and hired Bobby Allison as his driver. That combination won 10 races. And with Cale Yarborough behind the wheel, Howard's cars won 10 more times before Johnson purchased the team midway through the 1974 season.

By that point, Wheeler could see a change in momentum.

"All of a sudden, other companies said, 'Hey, this may be something we need to get into,' " Wheeler said. "And we began to see other people we hadn't ever seen [in the sport]. That also improved the competition.

"Ralph Seagraves told me one time, 'It was hard to get the presidents of the companies to come, so we started off with the purchasing manager. After a while, we created such a situation that the presidents wanted to come so they could meet all the other guys up there in the VIP suite areas. Pretty soon, the poor purchasing manager got kicked out of the Sunday race and we had to invite him to qualifying day.' "

Still, Wheeler said there were other forces at work that put NASCAR in the spotlight.

"I wonder if the strong rivalries then between [David] Pearson, [Richard] Petty and Allison didn't have a stronger influence than RJR at the time," Wheeler said. "Nothing, and I mean nothing, is stronger for a sport than rivalries, particularly those that are ongoing -- which we really do not have today.

"Back in those days there were no sponsors to protect. While no one wanted to be cast as the villain if it meant winning races, so what? Also, there was no such thing as a fine as I remember. It was dog eat dog and may the best/worst man win.

"I believe that this openness, intense rivalry and rough driving probably caused the sport to grow in a very fast way. RJR just added the dynamite to cause it to explode."

Yarborough won three consecutive Winston Cup championships driving for Johnson, beginning in 1976, and Darrell Waltrip added three more in Johnson's equipment in the 1980s. So Johnson eventually got his money back from R.J. Reynolds -- and then some.

"It was a blessing for the sport, but I went on and got me a good sponsor," Johnson said. "And me and Richard Petty just about got all the money anyway."

So did France ever apologize for stealing Johnson's sponsor?

"He'd kid me every once in a while, saying, 'You're the one who started all this crazy stuff,' " Johnson said. "But I'd say back, 'Yeah, but you got the money.' "

And in Wheeler's opinion, Junior Johnson deserves much of the credit.

"If you look back on the savior of this whole thing, of the tough times we had in the early '70s, I don't know anybody who did more than Junior did," Wheeler said. "He got Chevy in, he got RJR into it. And we owe him a tremendous debt of gratitude for all that."